Superman: True Brit
by Kim "Howard" Johnson,
John Cleese, John
Byrne, Mark Farmer
(DC Comics, 2004)

There's an effective message at the heart of this outwardly quiet and decent comedy. While it's a message that readers of Superman encounter on a fairly regular basis -- namely, that being Superman is a very difficult thing to pull off successfully -- that message is neatly repackaged in Johnson and Cleese's True Brit, a what-if story that has the last son of Krypton crash landing in the English countryside, far from Kansas and the American way of life but very much still on the side of truth and justice (which are not American exports).

While the title describes the story well enough, the reverence contained for its subject made me think that the title should have been something more along the lines of "From Britain with Love." Indeed, the very last page almost seems to be the tag on a lovely gift-wrapping of wit and charm that's hard to put down without a smile.

Ignoring the problematic nature of having incomprehensible powers might seem to be the way to go, especially when an alien infant with the gifts of a god threatens to draw attention in a typically quiet English farming town. Never mind that the boy can tear tree stumps out of the ground with his bare hands, or that he can heat a cup of tea to the point of boiling just by looking at it. Never mind any of that, because what would the neighbors think?

This is the heart of the dilemma for Colin Clark, a.k.a. Kal-El of the planet Krypton ("Colin" being the closest English equivalent to "Kal-El"). As his loving but completely misguided adoptive parents remind him constantly, the neighbors must never get wind of what he can really do when he lets loose, so it's better to do nothing at all. Ordinariness is valued above all other virtues. Even being a reporter for a major newspaper is too lofty an ambition for Colin's well-intentioned, seriously prissy parents, but Colin follows his heart and ends up working for a smutty tabloid while dreaming of being a real reporter for a major newspaper.

The summation of what it means to be truly British -- w.w.t.n.t, meaning "what would the neighbors think," is the golden rule -- clashes with what Cleese and company consider to be the true evil facing Britain and the world: the need for tabloid trash and the dehumanizing effect it has on decent souls like Colin and his family. This is a unique lens through which the legend of Superman and modern Britain alike are viewed. One must never put a foot out of line, yet what is one to do when the public appetite for dreck dictates a constant dipping below the moral radar in order to "get the scoop"?

Underneath the camp is a smart and entertaining story that, despite its deplorable lack of action, is one of the neatest character studies of Superman ever to be written. It's about a very ordinary man named Colin who just wants to help people. But, try as he might, there are some things even a Superman cannot do, such as make the trains run on time, reduce the national deficit and so on. Supported by an ensemble of fellow newshounds who greatly resemble the staff of The Daily Planet, Colin wrestles with his greatest challenge -- his conscience -- as he tried to figure out how to be a service to his country without being a source of shame to his traditionalist parents who move all over the globe to avoid the prying eyes of neighbors. It's the non-corruption of the hero that is the real battle and victory in the story.

Cleese and Johnson's breezy charm ripples off of every page, neatly complemented by fellow Englishman John Byrne's artwork, which fits better here than it has anywhere for quite some time. Behind every pun and instance of public schoolboy humor, lies good, old-fashioned British sarcasm at its best ... and that humor is always at its best when it's pricking the bubbles of the pompous.

Rich in sentiment and a loyalty to an England before Rupert Murdoch got his hands in its press, this "what-if" -- which runs a bit long in some spots -- nonetheless sparkles with old-school wit and quite decent plot twists. Most British comedies are comedies of ideas; in True Brit, the idea is how to perform Good Deeds while not falling into the trap set by the most evil force in the universe. No, it's not Lex Luthor but the tabloid editors, who build icons up for the specific purpose of destroying them, just to sell newspapers. The entanglements that Colin finds himself in are indeed funny, while posing very real questions about the limits of unlimited abilities, but it's not all for show. From the characters' homage-paying names to the send-up of the mentality of tabloid reporters, Cleese and Johnson use their genteel humor to drive home the point that evil lives more in the hearts of those who believe that power and success are their own rewards. They do it so well it's a wonder that humor isn't more of a staple in the monthly comics. Until the American publishers of Superman do catch on, you're in for a decent story, and Cleese & Co. don't disappoint.

- Rambles
written by Mary Harvey
published 2 April 2005

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